Massey University's answer to the big data analytics problem faced by companies

Companies are finding it hard to make use of their big data to solve business problems and Massey University is trying to solve part of the problem.

Think your companies’ data nerds can help you sort out the big data stuff? Not quite. According to Massey University’s marketing expert Professor Harald van Heerde, there is a gap in the market in that big data experts don’t necessarily get it when it comes to linking it for business use.

Companies are having a tough time getting employees who can make sense of big data and helping business with creative solutions using analytics. Further, few companies have been able to leverage on the power of big data, he adds.

According to the Wall Street Journal, quoting Richard Starnes, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Information Management practice, companies have failed to extract value from their big data for various reasons.

The first being, they have trouble zeroing in on an appropriate business problem or use case to test in a pilot project, or they get bogged down in tactical questions like: Where do we get the data? How do we store it? What technologies should we use? Who should have access to the data?

The advice is for companies to focus on identifying and defining the business problem, and use a pilot test case to solve these problems.

Bearing in mind the gap in the market, Massey University is launching New Zealand’s first business-focused analytics degree next month to address the skills shortage in analysing ‘big data’.

Professor van Heerde, who analyses large data sets in his own research to quantify the impact of marketing, says the university is responding to a need identified by New Zealand businesses.

Professor Harald van Heerde

“We constantly hear from employers looking for people with strong analytical skills who also have a good understanding of business,” he says. “These companies are having a very hard time finding anybody in New Zealand who can handle big data in a way that makes it useful to them.”

He adds: “With the ability to track so many things electronically now – website visits, mobile phone geolocation apps, loyalty programmes and so on – a lot of companies are realising they are collecting a lot of data but doing very little with it.

“This is a valuable resource they already have, it’s just a matter of harvesting it. Making better sense of your data leads to better decision-making – whether it’s deciding the best marketing activity to invest in, the most valuable customers to target, or identifying trends that you might not otherwise notice.”

The Master of Analytics (Business) will be available at Massey’s Albany campus in 2015 and will be taught by lecturers from both the Massey Business School and College of Sciences.

“There are other postgraduate analytics qualifications in New Zealand, but they focus more on the technical aspects of data analysis for scientists,” Professor van Heerde says. “This degree is unique because it’s about using data in a way that is useful for real-world business decision-making.

“Computer scientists are good at handling data, but that doesn’t mean they understand business problems and how they can be tackled by data sets that often exist within a firm.”

Students will be taught the fundamentals of data mining, statistics and handling data sets by science lecturers. They will then transfer those skills to a business context by specialising in marketing, finance or supply chain management. In the final phase of the one-year programme, students will complete a real analytics project for their employer or another company.

Professor van Heerde says the practical programme was developed with input from an industry panel, which included representatives from companies like KPMG, The Warehouse Group and 2 Degrees. He’s confident the new qualification will be well supported by employers who recognise they are facing a skills shortage.

“We are only at the beginning of the revolution – more and more things are going online all the time and there’s been a generational shift in attitude where young people are happy to share where they are and what they are doing. They see the benefits of receiving the right offer at the right time.”

He says there has been a change in the mentality of organisations as well. Decisions not backed by clear data would be a hard sell, internally, he adds.